A Boy and His Horse: The Oedipal Complex at Work

“[H]e would sit on his big rocking horse, charging madly into space, with a frenzy that made the little girls peer at him uneasily.” This passage, from D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” describes the “mad little journey” of Paul as he searches for the luck his mother desires, yet lost since she “married an unlucky husband.” As the child, too old to legitimately play on the wooden toy, makes his furious rides on the rocking horse, rides that leave him exhausted and lead to his untimely death, the reader begins to wonder what drives the boy to exert himself so, what powerful force compels him to ride on. An answer can be found in Paul’s Oedipal relationship with his mother and the unconscious motivations that are contained therein. The Oedipal conflict refers to the “triangular relationship between father, mother, and son” in which the son competes with the father for the affection and attention of the mother, wishing to replace the father’s role in the mother’s life (Bhugra 70). This complicated and unhealthy relationship between parents and offspring flourishes in “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” Paul knows that his mother is not happy and would like better resources with which to “keep up the style.” When his mother is reduced to secretly working outside of the home to maintain their lifestyle, Paul determines to take action. The boy realizes that his father is not able to satisfy his mother financially and, therefore, decides to take upon himself the role of husbandly provider and protector of his mother, thus establishing his role in the Oedipal dynamic. In doing so, Paul places himself in a position of responsibility-real or imagined-that is too mature for his years, a position that he cannot fill the way he thinks he can. Despite his age, Paul finds that he can meet the financial needs of his mother, as his father never could, because he discovered that he is possessed of “luck.” Luck, he feels, is the trait that his mother desires and his father lacks and that reveals to him the upcoming race horse winners. Paul’s frantic journeys on his rocking horse leave him with the information necessary to win more money to provide for his mother, thus proving himself more suited and capable than his father for the care and affection of the mother. Paul’s act of riding the rocking horse, through which he gains the names of the future winning horses, is a symbolic act of the sexual competition with his father for the love of his mother. As Paul charges along on his horse he does so “wildly” with his hair “tossed” and his eyes having an odd “glare in them.” Every passage describing his episodes on the rocking horse alludes to the act of sexual intercourse. He “mounts” his horse to begin his “furious ride” in hopes to “get there.” Paul’s exploits also are described in sexually charged language such as “frenzy,” “madly surging,” “urging his wooden horse,” and “straddling.” The rocking horse itself stares off in the aftermath with “[I]ts red mouth slightly open, its big eye wide and bright,” a rather tell-tale description that evokes the effects of sexual passion. It is in his sexual feats with the rocking horse that Paul is able to compete with and prevail against his father as a worthy and suitable husband for the mother. Paul’s climaxes leave him with the ability to meet his mother’s needs, one of the many duties where his father is found lacking. The boy’s success in his competition with his father only enhances his Oedipal complex and encourages him to continue in his attempts to replace his father as the man in his mother’s life. Still, Paul’s crazed exploits on his rocking horse are, in a physical sense, unproductive and unsuccessful. No matter how furiously or frantically he rides the little wooden horse he is left in the same spot, never leaving his room where the journeys upon the rocking horse occur. Paul makes his rides wishing that his pretend missions on his horse will fulfill his hope to “at last get there.” The nature of the rocking horse leaves him stagnant-vainly tottering back and forth with the goal to “get there” while never getting anywhere. If we see the rocking horse as Paul’s partner in a symbolic sex act we must then realize that he, as does his father, falls short as his riding “goes nowhere” (Snodgrass 122.) As he wins more and more money on the race horses, Paul realizes that he can now give his mother what his father cannot-financial support and peace of mind from the house’s whisperings for the need of more money (“There must be more money! There must be more money!”). Yet, the boy soon comes to understand that his mother’s love is (at least monetarily) worth more than he had expected and he is forced to fulfill his self-appointed role of provider. His Oedipal complex leaves him feeling that he must succeed over his father and ultimately demonstrate that his capabilities exceed those of his father. Paul determines that he must ride himself ragged in order to meet his goal to replace his father in his mother’s life, and maintains his constant competition with his father to give his mother what he thinks she needs and desires. As Paul attempts to meet his mother’s needs he becomes overly sensitive to the unspoken desires she seems to express. Paul tries to pick up on the nonverbal clues of his mother so that he can prove his ability to anticipate and fulfill her needs as a husband would (Tedlock 210). He hears her silent entreaty for someone to hush the voice of the house that whispers its demands to her distraught mind. He picks up on his mother’s dissatisfaction with her marriage and life in general through the frigidity she exhibits both toward her incompetent husband and her unwanted children (Snodgrass 118). He imagines that she requires his support to find the happiness and luck she feels she has lost. She tells Paul, “I used to think I was [lucky], before I married. Now I think I’m very unlucky indeed.” Recognizing the voids in his mother’s life Paul attempts to restore her missing luck and fulfill the obligation in which his father has proven disappointing: financial support. The blame for Paul’s confusion does not solely stem from his mother’s example, for much of the fault lies with his father. As the literal husband and expected provider of the family Paul’s father’s ability and performance has fallen devastatingly short. He disappears off “into town to some office” and “though he had good prospects, these prospects never materialized.” His physical and emotional disappearance from the family begins to take its toll on the misguided young boy. The destruction of love between the husband and wife, resulting from his fading away, serves as a silent encouragement for Paul to develop his Oedipal tendencies toward his seemingly vulnerable mother (Koban 392). The father’s neglectful behavior may stem at least partially from a sense of failure. He has been unable to support the lifestyle his wife wishes to have–a lifestyle that no man short of a king could afford to give–for, as Lawrence indicates, her “tastes were just as expensive” even when the family income was decreasing. As he realizes that he cannot ever meet her lofty and unrealistic expectations Paul’s father withdraws from his wife and his family, perhaps hoping that if left alone his inadequacies and problems will simply disappear. His evasive behavior, however, leaves him in a vulnerable position both as a husband and provider. As his withdrawal increases alongside his wife’s dissatisfaction a vast gap in the family dynamics begins to form (Snodgrass 118). It is this chasm that Paul feels not only responsible but encouraged to fill as worthy provider to the family, and more particularly as a provier for his clearly neglected mother. While Paul’s father does play a role, however passive and indirect, in the deepening complex of the boy, it is his mother who is the driving force of his psychosis. Paul’s mother actively encourages, whether consciously or subconsciously, his efforts to replace his father. She openly tells him that it is his father’s lack of luck that causes her unhappiness and state of being, what she considers, “the poor members of the family.” As she feels the weight of disillusionment with her dissatisfying mate she attempts to groom her son into the perfect husband and provider. In her desperation to create the perfect little man–albeit one that to her remains eternally untouchable–she has supported his Oedipal overtures meant to win her love (Piedmont-Marton). Paul’s mother instills in him the desire to meet her needs as a lucky husband when she tells him that she cannot be happy until she is lucky and she cannot be lucky “if [she] married an unlucky husband.” Selfishly, she seeks her own fulfillment through the devotion of her son, completely unconcerned for what her temperamental behaviors do to the child too young to understand or manage the feelings she evokes in him. Although she tries to pretend that she is unaware of what is really going on with her misguided son, she implicitly supports the escapades that bring her closer to her goal of financial fulfillment. She uses Paul’s desire to please her to exploit and manipulate her son, telling him of the whisperings of the house for more money, knowing that he would do anything to win the love and affection she withholds from him. Paul’s longing to fulfill his mother’s needs drives him to appease the whispers that plague her. The whisperings she hears from the house become a powerfully compelling force in his young mind and are also echoed in “the springs of the still-swaying rocking horse, and even the horse, bending his wooden, champing head, heard it”(Martin 64). Paul’s Oedipal complex is driven by the need for his mother’s love, love that she doesn’t know how to give her children, but knows how and would give to a provider. Paul’s mother found herself living a life she had become painfully disillusioned with with a man she felt had misrepresented his capabilities to care for her. The boy’s mother felt “coldly” to the children that were “thrust upon her.” This statement itself shows the mother’s feeling of resentment toward her children, children she felt were imposed upon her as unwanted burdens she neither asked for nor desired. When she saw her children she “felt the centre of her heart go hard” and realized that she “could not feel love, no, not for anybody.” Still, she seemed a model of maternal excellence, for everyone who saw the family commented on what a great mother she was and how much she adored those children. Only the mother and her children knew the truth of her familial apathy-“they read it in each other’s eyes.” It was this lack of maternal love that sent Paul looking for another method through which to earn his mother’s affection and attention. If he couldn’t receive her interest as her child, perhaps he could win it as her provider, filling the position in which his father was incompetent. His desperate attempts to make his mother see how suitable he would be as a husband-figure keep failing as she will not seriously consider her child as a provider, even while she grooms him to be one. On several occasions Paul tries to call his mother’s attention to his new-found ability to give her what he considers to be immense financial support. Even as he confides in his mother that he was lucky he felt that “she did not believe him; or, rather, that she paid him no attention to his assertion. This angered him somewhat, and made him want to compel her attention.” Paul finds only frustrating outcomes to all of his endeavors to prove himself good enough for his mother. His confusion is intensified by the mixed messages he receives all the while from the mother who pushed him to become the ideal little man and at the same time remained repulsed by the child she still resents and with whom she feels no maternal connection. Still, Paul, in the limited understanding of a child’s mind, determines that the only way to receive his mother’s approval is to demonstrate even more completely his ability to take care of her. Seeing that the only way to win his mother’s love was to take over the husbandly function of provider, it is no wonder that Paul falls so deeply into his Oedipal role.Paul is, however, much too young to take on the responsibility of acting as the bread-winning man of the house. The assignment of protector and provider Paul placed upon himself, in his attempt to gain the much sought after love of his mother, literally kills him. His need for his mother’s love, love which he couldn’t give to him as her child, drives him to find an effective means by which to her affection. Yet, it is the love originally sought for, not that of a husband or lover, that Paul finally received from his mother as she witnesses his collapse and feels “all her tormented motherhood flooding upon her” and rushes “to gather him up.” Paul’s acting on the Oedipal conflict was not an endeavor he chose for himself–he would have gladly welcomed maternal affection–rather, it was something forced upon him. It was his last resort to obtain that which he craved, that for which he willingly gave all of himself, that which he ultimately gained through the sacrifice of his own life-his mother’s love.Annotated BibliographyBhugra, Dinesh and Kamaldeep Bhui. “Is the Oedipal complex universal? Problems for sexual and relationship psychotherapy across cultures.” Sexual and Relationship Therapy 17.1, 2002. This article discusses the nature of the Oedipal conflict. The authors describe the origin of the Oedipus complex in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Tyrannus. Of particular note is that Sigmund Freud first referred to this complex in his work as condition only suffered by males desiring to replace their fathers and take over his role in the mother’s life.Koban, Charles. “Allegory and the Death of the Heart in ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner.'” Studies in Short Fiction 15.4 (1978) 392. http://search.epnet.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&an=7125117 This article discusses the disintegration of the relationships of family unit in “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” The father’s “fading away” from his role as protector and provider of the family leaves the mother disturbed and insecure. Although it could be argued that it was her needy financial demands that drove him to retreat, it is the mother’s sense of abandonment that leaves her needing someone to fill the role he has left unoccupied. She finds that someone in her conflicted son, Paul.Lawrence, D. H. “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” Literature: A Portable Anthology. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. 339-352.Martin, W.R. Fancy or Imagination? “The Rocking Horse Winner.” College English 24.1(1962) 64-65. This essay discusses the rocking horse and how it reflects Paul’s devotion to his mother.Piedmont-Marton, Elisabeth. “An Overview of ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner.'” Short Stories for Students (1997). This article summarizes and explains “The Rocking-Horse Winner” as a subject for literary critics. Piedmont-Marton discusses the fable aspects of the story as well as the role of the mother in enhancing Paul’s Oedipal complex. She suggests that Paul’s mother desires him to be the perfect man and so encourages his internal conflict and competition with his father as she strives to make her son the unattainable husband she longs for.Spilka, Mark. D. H. Lawrence: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Prentice Hall, 1963.Key portions of this book deal with the psychoanalytical issues of the characters in “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” The sexual symbolism of “The Rocking-Horse Winner” is most evident in the rocking horse itself. The horse symbolizes the sexual act as Paul rides and rides but never gets anywhere on his horse. As the horse is only a representation of a real horse so is Paul’s behavior with the horse only a representation of the sexual act. His riding on the wooden toy gets him as far as his mimicked sexual experience does – nowhere. The psychoanalytical aspects of the story also provide insight into the workings of the characters’ minds. The father’s withdrawal from his responsibilities is provoked by his wife’s continual assessment of him as lacking, and so he fulfills her prophesy by becoming the incompetent husband she has deemed him to be. This withdrawal of the husband then invites Paul to pursue his Oedipal conflict as he attempts to replace his disappointing father in his mother’s life. Because of his very young age, Paul is not able to understand the implications that come with his desire to replace his father. He is ultimately set up to fail as he cannot fulfill a role that is too mature for him to undertake and not his place to fill in the first place. Still, despite Paul’s inability to be the man in his mother’s life, his mother encourages his Oedipal complex as she offers her love and affection only to a provider and not to a child whom she feels represents her life with a husband who has disappointed her. Tedlock, E. W. D. H. Lawrence, Artist and Rebel. New Mexico: The University of New Mexico Press, 1963. The portions of this book which refer to “The Rocking-Horse Winner” consider the costs that people experience in the effort to get ahead in the world and how those costs are registered in D. H. Lawrence’s short story. The ability to meet the worldly needs of the mother is seen be Paul as the way to win her love. Both characters are trying to get ahead in the world and have their needs met, but the costs for both end up being greater than the value of the initial desire.

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